Branson wanted to prove two things on Tuesday: that its win over Nixa on Friday wasn’t a stroke of luck and that the Pirates are a legitimate contender in this year’s Central Ozark Conference Large Division race.
And while Branson struggled at times offensively in the first half, it was a big second-half surge that propelled the Pirates to a 56-50 conference victory.
“After our win on Friday, we wanted to come out and prove to everybody that it wasn’t a fluke and that we’re the real deal,” Branson senior Thatch Unruh said. “Getting this win helps do that.”
Ozark (11-10, 1-2) appeared to be in control of the game at halftime by making 5 of 7 shots from beyond the arc and held a six-point lead (29-23).
In contrast, Branson (15-6, 3-0) made just 1 of 9 from 3 over the first two quarters, including Unruh’s 0 for 3, but just like most good shooters he wasn’t about to stop.
“My job to help this team is to score and if I’m not scoring then it’s going to be tough for us to win,” Unruh said. “That’s my role, so I’m just going to keep shooting to see if I can get a couple of shots to fall and get in a rhythm.
“If I’m missing shots in the first half, then I’ve got to keep shooting.”
Branson outscored Ozark 9-0 to start the third quarter and took a 37-36 lead with one quarter to play.
The Pirates opened up the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run that put Branson up 45-36 with 4:11 left.
“That’s the third game in a row now that we’ve been down six or eight points at halftime and still found a way to win the game,” Branson coach Brian McTague said. “What I told our kids is, ‘you know you’re a good team when you can grind games out.'”
Ozark trailed by 11 points (49-38) with four minutes left in the game, when junior Nick Cookinham caught fire.
Cookinham made three 3s in three shots on three consecutive trips for Ozark to cut the lead to four points (51-47) with 2:03 left in the game.
A 3 on the Tigers’ next possession by senior Brett Krisik cut the lead to three points (53-50) with 1:16 left.
After a Branson turnover with 1:06 left, Ozark took possession with a chance to tie the game with a 3, but instead turned the ball over with 43 seconds remaining.
“There was nothing offensively pretty about this game tonight, but I thought both teams competed hard and guarded hard,” McTague said. “Give Ozark credit, they made it hard for us to run anything we wanted to run and part of that was confusion and part of that was us making things up as we went along.
“I don’t know that we ever ran a very good possession of offense the whole game where we executed like we drew it up.”
Unruh made 9 of 10 free throws over the final 3:41 to seal the victory and finished with 18 points.
“Every time I go to the free throw line, I tell myself that there’s a chance that someone in the gym thinks I’m going to miss and I’m going to prove them wrong,” Unruh said. “That’s helps me get focused and get motivated.”
Ozark was led by junior Korbin Evans’ 16 points.
Junior Da’Quan Ervin led Branson with 19 points, five boards and a blocked shot.